COLUMBIA — It’s a tradition that dates back 114 years. And it’s ending.
That’s the two-part myth that’s circulating about the 2010 Arch Rivalry football game against the University of Illinois. In truth, the Missouri and Illinois football teams have played only intermittently, 23 times since they first met in St. Louis in 1896. They began playing more often in the mid-1970s, but the largest stretch of consecutive years the teams have played is just six.
- Missouri's season-opener against Illinois in St. Louis will be broadcast on FOX Sports Midwest. Kickoff is scheduled for 11:40 a.m. Joel Meyers and Dave Lapham will call the game. FOX Sports Midwest is channel 32 on Mediacom, channel 647 on DirecTV, channel 418 on Dish Network and channel 27 on Charter.
- Mike Kelly and John Kadlec will call the game on the radio for the Tiger Radio Network. In Columbia, the game can be heard on KCMQ FM/96.7. A list of other affiliates throughout the state can be found on the official Missouri athletics website.
- The game will also be broadcast on Sirius Satellite Radio channel 125 and XM Satellite Radio channel 104.
- Missouri's first two home games of the 2010 season, against McNeese State and San Diego State will only be available through pay-per-view services. Both games are scheduled for 6 p.m. kickoffs.
So, the first half of the myth, the 114 years of games? Debunked.
The second aspect, the “no, it’s ending!” part of the myth, isn't necessarily true, either. When the teams announced in 2009 that they wouldn’t play after the 2010 season, the main concern they cited was Illinois’s desire for more home games. Illinois also has a solid losing record in the matchup (7-16 overall) and has gone 1-6 in St. Louis. So it’s not exactly a game that Illinois is going to miss.
“The easy thing to say is that Illinois doesn’t want to get beat anymore,” Missouri sports historian Michael Atchison said.
However, the Illinois athletic department has said that, though there will definitely be a hiatus in the matchup, it would not be opposed to renewing the rivalry if the teams were to play on a rotating home and away schedule. Pinkel said that he and Missouri Athletics Director Mike Alden have discussed their desire to play the game six out of every 10 years, though he acknowledged that playing in St. Louis might be more difficult.
So, disappointed fans need not become too depressed. The matchup may not be dead. If it survives, it will exist in different venues, but a break of a couple years has yet to kill the rivalry. If the Illini and the Tigers do meet again, the hatred between the teams will remain, but the intangible rush of the loud, cavernous neutral site, which head coach Gary Pinkel described as a "bowl-type atmosphere" will be gone.
“It’s too bad,” said quarterback Blaine Gabbert. “There’s nothing like playing in the dome with all your family and friends watching. It’s such a great feeling.”
Obviously, much has changed since the teams’ first meeting in 1896, a season in which the Tigers also played against such renowned football giants as the San Antonio YMCA, Wentworth Military Academy and the Texas School for the Deaf (its team was actually called the Mutes). After 1896, the teams met only four times before they played again in St. Louis in 1969. That game, a resounding 37-6 Missouri victory at Busch Stadium, ushered in the first hints of the neutral-site rivalry that we have today.
1969: Something to prove
In 1969, the Tigers were coming off of a successful season that ended in a 35-10 victory over Alabama in the Gator Bowl. The team, however, still felt that it needed to establish its dominance in the game against Illinois, which was a common theme in the first few St. Louis games.
“The problem was that we had lost some really good senior leaders," Edgar Taylor, a linebacker who played in the game, said. "It was … on our part to start to pick up our game."
Inexperienced players have established their reputations in the game throughout the years, but one factor marked the 1969 game as different: the Illinois loyalty in St. Louis. Taylor said that in the 1960s and 1970s, Illinois drew a lot more recruits from St. Louis than it does today. Missouri, in contrast, had more players who grew up in out-state areas than in St. Louis.
“You know, it’s kind of the advantage of being at home,” Taylor said. “We felt it was a little more of an away game than a home game because of all the Illinois support here. The local news media was more excited about Illinois than Missouri.”
In the end the Missouri team, including its few St. Louis players, delivered a memorable performance. Taylor said that one of the most exhilarating moments of the game was when St. Louis native Joe Moore, a running back whom Taylor called a “good, strong runner,” deflected a tackle and ran for a first down, turning the momentum in Missouri’s favor.
“The irony is that our St. Louis people did so well in that game,” Taylor said. “Those guys contributed a lot and stabilized us a lot because they were trying to prove it to local guys.”
2002-2010: The modern rivalry takes shape
After Missouri’s dominant victory, the series with Illinois continued off-and-on in Columbia and Champaign, Ill., until 2002. That year, the teams returned to St. Louis with the same momentum and rivalry, the same need for each team to prove itself at a neutral site. But in the 33-year absence from St. Louis, much had changed.
Instead of playing in an outdoor stadium that held, at its peak capacity, about 57,000 fans, the current game is held in the enclosed Edward Jones Dome, which holds about 9,000 more fans than Busch ever did.
Bring on the echoing volume.
The leadup to the 2002 game was similar to 1969. Illinois had been a major power the season before, ending the 2001 season with a 10-2 record, while Missouri had finished at 5-7 under a relatively new coach Gary Pinkel.
So, like it did in 1969, Missouri came into the 2002 game with a nagging need to prove itself. The team was not yet a legitimate power, but it ran onto the turf at the Edward Jones dome with a purpose.
“What’s really striking about that game in 2002, which is kind of the birth of the modern series, that game was kind of the rebirth of the program,” Atchison said. “It was Brad Smith’s first game, and nobody expected anything.”
Atchison said the Illinois game, especially since 2002, has been a series of impressive debuts for Missouri players.
“That day was one of those moments when the lightbulb came on,” he said about the 2002 game. “He (Smith) was unlike anyone we’ve seen play in such a long time.”
Atchison emphasized that the awe surrounding Smith’s debut has repeated over and over in the Dome in recent years.
“Because of when it is, and because you’re sometimes introduced to names you don’t know, that game really is when heroes are made,” Atchison said. “There are so many players whose names are synonymous with that game: Gabbert, Smith, Pig Brown.”
Atchison cites the 2007 game as a major milestone in the Missouri program. It was the first year since the 1960s that Missouri was a truly dominant football power. The team finished the season ranked No. 4 on the AP poll, and the Illinois game set the tone for the weeks and months that followed it. Missouri’s 40-34 victory was close at times, and had Missouri let Illinois slip by them and win, Atchison says the season might have played out in a radically different way.
“A break or two either way in that game really changes the recent history of the Missouri program,” he said.
Experiences like the 2007 game show that only a few plays can mean the difference in a game, and maybe even a season. With this in mind, the team shows up to the game each year with the knowledge that they're facing a formidable opponent to start the season.
"It's exciting for our players," Pinkel said. "It's certainly exciting for our fans. It's always difficult to play a game of this magnitude starting off the season. You have to be good right out of the chute."
The recent series has been a string of Missouri successes, with some expected and others, like 2002, more surprising. And, unlike in 1969, those successes have come in a mostly pro-Missouri environment. Atchison, who attends the game regularly, says that the crowd is usually slightly skewed toward Missouri fans, who often buy out Illinois’ tickets.
“Football has certainly meant more to Missouri in recent years than it has to Illinois,” Atchison said. “For them, it’s been so intermittent. They’ve been wildly inconsistent … which is hard on a fan base.”
2010: The end of a tradition?
Missouri’s consistent dominance since 2002 stands in stark contrast to Illinois’ recent performance, and the 2010 Missouri football team wants to continue its streak on Saturday. With 22 players from the St. Louis area, the team has a large stake in the game, and the hometown players are disappointed that this will be the last time to play in the city they know so well, in front of many of their family and friends.
“We just want to come out on the right foot," St. Louisan Wes Kemp said. "Playing in the Dome in front of our Missouri fans is big. We have a big base in St. Louis. Hopefully we sell more tickets than Illinois, so we’re mostly black and gold.”
Kemp and many of his teammates have fond memories of victories in the Dome, but Kemp’s experience there stretches back to high school, when he played in De Smet Jesuit High School’s 48-31 state championship victory in 2005. So, whether it’s the memories, the massive fan base or the sense of camaraderie with the teams who have played in St. Louis before them, the 2010 team has many factors driving it to end the series with a victory.
“This year, we just hope to come out and play hard, get the season started out on the right foot, and beat Illinois for the last time in this rivalry,” Kemp said.
As the seconds tick down on the scoreboard on Saturday, they will mark the end of the rivalry in its current form. Kemp, Gabbert and their teammates’ names will go down in the history of the rivalry in St. Louis, alongside those of Smith, Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Gray and Taylor.
“It’s a really special game, and it may never be the same again,” Atchison said.